MARSEILLE - The Old Port, the historic quarter’s main street known as the Canebière, Notre Dame de la Garde church -- these are three must-sees for any tourist in Marseille, France. And everybody visits them. But how about the old quarter known as the Panier? Very few venture there. Even many locals take the long way around it, because it is still strongly associated with prostitution, crime and drugs.
But we learned how thoroughly likeable the Panier actually is from Eva -- a Viennese woman who has lived in Marseille for years and knows the place like the back of her hand. Eva is a volunteer tour guide called a “greeter” who can show other German-speakers her adoptive city in a way they never could otherwise experience.
We visit the ceramicist who makes fun jewelry, the Chocolatière du Panier that produces the city's most original chocolates, and the boutique that sells young local labels at reasonable prices. Out and about with Eva in the narrow streets, we see every nook and cranny and learn about the history of the neighborhood, which was formerly a Greek agora (public open space) and later the site of medieval cloisters.
We discover art galleries, pretty cafés, and equally appealing shops some of which sell traditional Marseille soap. And chatting with the owners we learn all about local issues, beefs, new cultural projects, you name it.
Not all greeters are foreign, like Eva; many are French and lead tours in French. There are 40 volunteer Marseille guides in all -- and there is no charge for their services.
But the southern French city is not the only one that offers greeters. The concept has been quick to catch on in other European cities -- as well as on other continents.
The original idea was hatched in New York, where Big Apple Greeters have existed for about 20 years. The first greeter was Lynn Brooks, who in 1992 started showing visitors her New York with its different neighborhoods, exotic locations, gabby locals and curious shops. From there the idea made its way across the Big Pond to Europe.
Today, untold numbers of greeters welcome tourists from Australia to the Ivory Coast -- although the densest concentration of them is in European cities like Paris, Lyon, Nantes, Brussels, Dublin, Athens, Mannheim, Munich and Berlin.
Anybody who wants to can tour Hoxton, Greenwich or Brick Lane with a London Ambassador, or Hamburg’s out of the way areas with a greeter like Lisa who got high marks from some Germans from southernmost Bavaria for the way she revealed her city and the “northern German character” to them on their visit.
Improving the image of their city
Finding a greeter anywhere in the world is easy – just log on to www.globalgreeternetwork.info which lists cities that have them. If where you’re heading is on the list, you need to take contact at least two weeks before your arrival, giving your preferred dates for a tour, what languages you speak, and what your particular interests are. Based on this information, a suitable greeter will be fished out of the pool and take it from there.
The tours last between two and three hours and really are entirely free of charge. Visitors are of course free to invite their greeter for a coffee or snack. And anyone who is open-minded and likes people, loves where he or she lives (either the whole city or just a particular neighborhood) and enjoys showing it to others, can become a greeter.
Speaking various languages is considered a plus but is not a requirement. Otherwise the rules are that greeters are on no account to discriminate against their guests based on race, skin color, gender, age, sexual orientation or any type of handicap.
By why do greeters work for free? Why are some people willing to spend their time helping outside visitors discover the place they call home?
Aside from the good feeling they get at having made a contribution to sustainable tourism, many find it extremely enriching to meet new and interesting people. Some greeters are also actively trying to improve the image of their city.
Berlin greeters aren’t the only ones who want to help visitors discover the German capital as an “interesting, historically valuable city with an open world view.” Eva too wants people to see Marseille -- which has been named European cultural capital in 2013 -- with fresh eyes. "There are also plenty of French people who don’t come here because they think Marseille is grubby and dangerous, she says, speaking from experience. "And, for me, being a greeter is also a good way to keep my languages up," she adds. And finally, sometimes genuine bonds form with visitors. “We meet as guide and guests, and leave as friends.”